Daniel Terna’s essay for Bard College, September 2005

September 25, 2005

Daniel Terna’s essay for Bard College, September 2005

Daniel Terna, our son, graduated from the Middle School in 2001, one year before the Heschel High School opened. Daniel then went to the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn where he graduated in 2005.

Rebecca Shiffman, Daniel’s mother, is the daughter of survivors of the Shoah; I, Frederick Terna, Daniel’s father am a survivor. Daniel most probably was the only second-generation student at Heschel. Today there are many second-generation, and now, perhaps, even third-generation parents of Heschel students. I sense that Daniel’s comments, attached below, were partly shaped by the many years he was at Heschel.

Today Daniel is a freshman at Bard College at Annandale-on Hudson, north of New York City.

Bard College starts freshman a few weeks before the official opening of the campus with an intense study of reading and writing. On completion of Daniel’s course he downloaded the essay he had written.

I was deeply moved by his lines. Daniel is a little over eighteen years old, and, most of the time, displays all the traits of that age group. Here, suddenly, there is a manifestation of maturity that I did not expect to arrive until many years from today. Survivors of the Shoah and their children have written at length about the delayed aftereffect on their lives. I feel that there is a historical dimension to Daniel’s observations written sixty years after our liberation in 1945.

This is the text downloaded by Daniel. The only change I made was the reduction of the text from double to normal spacing.

Daniel Terna
Bard College
August 23, 2005
L&T/ Final Essay

Growing Up With a Survivor

In a 1996 interview, Fred Terna, my father, spoke about being a survivor.  “The Holocaust is like a crazy bass that is playing all the time.  I have learned to play the fiddle above it so that there should be some harmony to my life.  There isn’t a second, however, that I’m not aware of it.”  Likewise, it is fundamental for my wellbeing that I am forever conscious of my father’s past.  For my whole life I’ve had to come more to terms with my father’s past than my own.  It is only recently that I have realized this.  By acknowledging my father’s memories of the Holocaust, I am able to use my past as a reference guide for my present self.  By connecting my father’s behavior to my childhood memories, I’ve begun the process of accepting my own identity.  While our experiences shape who we are, and it is memories that remind us of who we are, it is oftentimes unclear why, upon reflection, we acted in certain ways.  What triggered us to act or react in exclusive ways?  It is not always possible to understand our past if we don’t have something concrete to refer to and make connections with in our present.  In my case, it is my father, and the memories that distinguish him, that have begun to help me understand my own memories, and thus myself.

I’ve grown up knowing it’s my duty to remember the events that plagued my father, but I haven’t always acted on that.  He bears the memories of his days in concentration camps on his forearm.  Born in Vienna in 1923, my father grew up with his parents and brother in Prague.  “My name then was not Terna as it is now, but Taussig,” my father said.  On October 3rd 1941, then 18 years old, he was put into a labor camp named Lipa.  After three and a half years, he had been to Lipa, Terazin, Auschwitz, and Kaufering.  After jumping from a moving train about to be bombed by planes, he was discovered hiding near Kaufering on April 27th, 1945, by American soldiers.  “I was one of the shuffling skeletons photographed by liberating Allied soldiers,” he said.  During his time at Terazin he began sketching, and he continued to do artwork after the war.  In 1946, my father moved to Paris and studied at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere and the Academie Julien.  He moved to New York City in 1952 and became a full-time artist.

As young children, our social lives are pretty simple: your friends are the kids on your block throwing snowballs at each other; or the daughter of your mother’s co-worker; or that kid who makes Lego buildings with you in pre-K.  We’re shaped mostly by our parents because they’re so ever-present, and as children we rely on them for everything.  Then we start going to school and our dependency on our parents lessens as outside influences begin to take hold and we’re separated from them for longer periods of time.  We interact with other children more often now, and they start to shape our identity too.  When I was singled out as having a unique father, the attention affected my behavior and view on life.  The feeling of strangers looking at my father and me beside each other is one I know all too well.  The age gap between my father and me is 64 years.  People always thought and still do that my father is my grandfather.  Most people don’t say anything, but I can see in their eyes the questions that must be running through their heads when they encounter my father and me together.  Greeting baby-sitters at the door comes to mind, or catching the side-glances of teachers and students during Parent’s Day at school.  Being the son of a Holocaust survivor isn’t something that’s easy to comprehend, much less to accept.  I grew up knowing vaguely of my father’s past.  Yes he’s old, I was taught, older than all of the other dads and in most cases, older or about the same age as other grandparents.

My relationship with my father has never been “normal”.  I remember when I first started noticing the differences:  the accent, the grey hair, the numbers tattooed on his arm.  For a long time, it was scenes of Nazi firing squads executing Jews that dominated my school drawings.  I remember one picture in particular: instead of signing my name on the bottom right of the page like I had learned to do, I drew a speech bubble coming from the mouth of a Nazi, yelling my name, as if to say: “You’re up next”.  I remember that drawing vividly because I had to sit down with an important head-teacher along with my parents.  That was in first grade.  In fourth grade I was sent to a therapist.  I remember playing Connect Four.  But instead of playing the game (trying to make a row of four checkers), I arranged the red and black checkers into a giant swastika.

As I grew older, things became more complicated.  I was jealous of my friends who played catch with their dads.  I remember how American all their dads were:  their haircuts, their business suits, their country houses outside of the city, the relaxed but stern way they spoke to their sons—my friends.  Their rich Americana attitudes appeared normal to me.  I was mostly embarrassed to have a father who couldn’t run fast, who spoke differently when talking to strangers, who was clearly unlike the dads that I knew and that I saw on TV.  I always felt singled out as the kid with the older, different dad.  In Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez voices a similar feeling towards his father’s difference in society.  “There were many times like the night at a brightly lit gasoline station (a blaring white memory) when I stood uneasily, hearing my father.  He was talking to a teenaged attendant…I looked away to the lights of passing automobiles.  I tried not to hear anymore.  But I heard only too well the calm, easy tones in the attendant’s reply.  Shortly afterward, walking toward home with my father, I shivered when he put his hand on my shoulder.  The very first chance that I got, I evaded his grasp and ran on ahead into the dark, skipping with feigned boyish exuberance” (290).  My friends teased me over my father’s behavior, his eccentricities; his obsessive-compulsive behavior, his need to plan everything out, his need to be punctual.  “I have a number of meshugassim, idiosyncrasies, but none of them that handicap me,” he said.  “For example, I can’t throw away shoes, and I’ve got to know the map, the physical layout of where I am geographically at any given time.  I tend to like to plan ahead and have alternatives.  If I have no control over a situation, I will be quite sure to have alternatives for handling it.  Security, safety, predictability.”  It was in high school that I eventually learned to feel guilty for not thinking about my father’s emotional scars, like forgetting to call home when I stayed out late.  My father knew family and friends who also stayed out late, but never returned.

I always lashed out at my father, at what I thought was unfair or irrational or just the wrong way to handle things as a father—as I had seen other fathers react to their sons.  I would become frustrated with his methodical manner—I didn’t have the patience to sit with him and have him help me with homework.  His mannerisms irritated me—he kept everything in perfect order, labeled every thing he owned in bold, uppercase letters, and he never threw anything out.  I constantly provoked my father into frustration by neglecting to inform him of my personal interests and pretending not to care about his own.  I did this because I was fighting the difference—I was fighting my father in order to quell the way he had shaped my identity.  I was cruel and irrational because I felt more defined by my father’s status than by my own.  It was small things, like the way people looked at us—on our block, in the supermarket, at school, in synagogue.  An emotional reunion with a close friend from the camps.  The crowded auditoriums when he was a main speaker.  People constantly reminding me how “lucky” I was to have a father who could still “run around at his age.”  His survivor status affected my social life and my social behavior.  And once people know of your past, you can’t escape it—you can’t run away from public knowledge.

His trauma from the concentration camps is obvious to me now.  Growing up though, I could never understand why he got nervous around authority figures such as security guards, police officers, even toll-booth collectors.  I’m still surprised nowadays that he hasn’t relaxed—that he’s still on edge after 60 years.  My father has a friend involved in the arts from Israel named Amon.  He has short white hair and a constant grin on his red face, and his massive potbelly shakes every time he laughs.  I always felt puny around him—incomparable to his two children who’ve both served their time in the Israeli army.  When I was in 10th grade, while Amon was staying with us to do some business along the East Coast, he casually asked me if I’d like to see a movie with him.  Despite the difficulty I had with his personality, I was open to the idea of getting to know him better.  It was warm outside, a Sunday, and I hadn’t had much homework so I accepted the invitation and together we walked to the theatre.  I must have said something particularly disturbing to my father in front of Amon, because on the way back home, Amon began questioning my behavior, my disrespect.  He said something that’s stuck in my head to this very day: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  I stared at my moving feet the whole way home.

The move to a new high school in 9th grade gave me the opportunity to keep a secret identity—I didn’t want anyone knowing about my father’s past, nor my own.  By falsifying my true self, I confused the way I perceived myself and how others perceived me.  My secret came out eventually, but this time I wasn’t ostracized and marked.  When my secret was finally revealed, my peers embraced the history of my father more than I did at the time.  In my sophomore year, for my amusement as well as theirs, I suggested one Friday that my friends come home with me to eat Shabbat dinner.  My mother always encouraged me to bring guests for dinner.  I wanted to see the reactions on my friends’ faces when my parents sang the strange prayers.  I wanted them to laugh along with me at how “weird” it was.  Little did I know that it was this one Shabbat night, April 27, that commemorated the anniversary of my father’s liberation from Kaufering, a subcamp of Dachau (where he had been sent after some weeks at Auschwitz).  My father considers this date his real birthday, but I had forgotten entirely.  My mother and father embraced in tears, and I stood awkwardly behind them, looking back and forth between my parents and friends, who shifted their weight from foot to foot and looked at the floor, at me, at my parents, at the floor.

By the time I reached my junior year, I had become ashamed with myself for keeping my friends in the dark.  I began to feel guilty for not dealing with my own father, and that scared me.  Although my friends reacted to my family situation uncomfortably, they understood that I didn’t want to talk about my father.  Over time though, the silence over both my father’s past and my identity among my friends began to feel so out of the ordinary that I began to bring it up myself.  I began to retell stories.  I cried for the first time in years in front of a friend.  My high school art teacher urged me desperately to connect with my father.

It was my senior year of high school that changed the way I looked at my father.  My respect for my father increased tenfold.  Maybe it was the fact that I enjoyed being different.  Maybe it was my attraction to his story.  Maybe it was the fact that I had always rebelled against my parents and by senior year I had almost unrestricted freedom, which gave me the opportunity to see my parents—and my father—not as an imposing authority figure, but as a real person.  In any case, I became proud of my father.  I was more open to others about his identity.  I no longer blushed when the word “Holocaust” was mentioned.  I embraced my own identity as the son of an ordinary human being who had been thrust into a horrendous atrocity but had survived nonetheless—and although my father isn’t as ordinary as everybody else, that doesn’t mean I should let what others see as odd as a disadvantage to my own life.  The harmonious tune of my father’s fiddle is ever-present in my life and I must skip along to it.

I credit some of my current understanding to my art teacher who insisted my father come in to school to lecture my art history class about the Holocaust and how it affected the style of his art.  “After the war,” he told us, “I started out painting semiabstract landscapes and eventually realized that painting was involving me in my past…It didn’t take me long to realize that concentration camps were an ingredient in my paintings, that there was a need to express certain ideas, to deal with the past…I paint attitudes, emotional states, rather than physical description.  But like most survivors, to some degree, I have the need to tell.  And this is my way of telling.”  I had finally come to terms with the fact that my father had invisible scars and that I needed to realize their origins.  I had finally decided to face his past without looking away, and could now begin to live my life with more confidence than ever before.

Growing up I’ve witnessed the interest that colleges, museums, newspapers, books, and TV programs have in survivors, especially my father.  Andreas Huyssen writes in Present Pasts of the “Holocaust as a universal trope of traumatic history” (16).  My father acknowledges that “from past experience, dwelling on details will evoke feelings within me that will disturb my functioning for a long time.”  Despite all the trauma he has endured, my father has the emotional strength to lecture on the event itself as well as his personal experiences, on a very frequent basis.  He is too modest, declaring, “My survival was due to luck…When every tenth was shot I was number nine.”  Upon liberation, he states, “I weighed thirty-five kilos [about 75 lb.] and I was twenty-two years old…three years, six months, three weeks, and two days in the camps have given me a superabundance of memories to deal with.  I’m aware of the fragility of life.  I’m also aware of my obligation to be a witness.  I’m here, a survivor.”

The central most important thing to me about my relationship to my father and his memories is that I learn to understand that his memories have shaped his personality, and that his personality profoundly affected my own identity.  In a June 6, 1989, Village Voice essay included in Art Spiegelman’s Art Spiegelman: Comix, Essays, Graphics, & Scraps, he explains that “My three-page strip, ‘Maus’, was propelled by a then-unarticulated personal need to understand my Survivor parents who had been permanently scarred by ‘The War’ and by an impulse to look dead-on at the root causes of my own deepest fears and nightmares” (14).  My own father’s presence has affected me powerfully, and until recently I wouldn’t have even credited him with that.  Since my memories shape the person that I am, I have to realize and understand that it was my father’s identity that made me do things in the past that I am now able to interpret.  The ability to analyze my past is one of the most important things for me.  I need to constantly question and try to understand.

My father said: “When you think about it, it was just a stretch of four years.  Yet you can understand how people have something happen in their lives—a car accident, a brief traumatic moment—and are affected by it throughout their lives.”   My father’s family perished in the camps.  My mother and I are a testament to his will to move on, to put a new life together, to look death in the face and prove that life can flourish.

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